Climate Change Turns Personal: Why Brands Must Adapt

August 2, 2012

Until recently, climate change remained an abstract concept to most Americans — something that may have long-term consequences for the planet, but moving too slowly be a significant concern in their daily lives.

Today, however, such sentiments may be beginning to change. As more and more Americans experience such events firsthand, they’re beginning to make the connection between climate change and its growing impact. Natural disasters and extreme weather events such as high winds and rain storms, floods, droughts and heat waves are happening more frequently — and with greater intensity.

There’s some evidence supporting Americans’ change in attitude: A recent survey conducted by Yale and George Mason universities indicates that the vast majority of Americans agrees that climate change is making natural disasters and extreme weather events worse.  More than a third of respondents reported that they personally experienced “harm” to their property, finances or physical or mental health from a natural disaster or extreme weather event in the past year alone.

Brands should take note: Climate change is becoming more relevant for Americans as its effects become more personal.  Crossing such a threshold is significant as it means that consumers will likely become more attuned to corporate activities that impact climate change – either positively or negatively. This, in turn, could significantly impact brand favorability, preference and purchase over time. Consumers may seek to reward brands that help reduce the impact of climate change, while penalizing those that do not.

Climate change is not going away. Many factors have emerged that will only serve to reinforce why climate change is personally relevant for Americans. Here’s how this is happening:

More Americans will experience climate change impact. Whether it be wildfires in the West, floods in the Midwest or Texas droughts, more Americans will be impacted firsthand as the probability of natural disasters and extreme weather events is only expected to increase with time  — and reinforce just how personal climate change’s effects really are.

Our quality of life is increasingly impacted. Natural disasters and extreme weather events are having a growing impact on the personal life of Americans.  While ‘harm’ is an extremely important measure of climate change impact, it does not capture the impact that extreme weather events have on the everyday lives of most Americans.

For example, a violent, fast-moving storm may prevent a mother from dropping off a child at practice. Snow storms in October mean that it is too dangerous for young children to play outside, with tree branches – still full of leaves – breaking off under the weight of the snow.  And heat soaring above 100 degrees can be hazardous to those with no means of cooling off.

Americans are sharing their stories. Users are taking advantage of social media platforms to document and share content regarding climate change and its impact on natural disasters and extreme weather events.  Pinterest, in particular, has emerged as a compelling visual platform to share images, infographics and stories about climate change and weather-related events.

Moreover, nonprofits are also facilitating users to share their stories.  Recently, for example, launched its global “Connect the Dots” campaign to motivate users to document and share images and stories about local climate change impact across the globe.

Americans are seeking out experts.  The Yale/George Mason survey indicated that 58 percent of Americans want to hear more from their TV weather forecaster about climate change.

Yet today, such trusted experts are largely silent on the issue. Sixty-nine percent of Americans indicate that their weather forecaster never or rarely ever (1-2 times over the past 12 months) mentions climate change.  This is consistent with an estimated 72-90 percent drop in climate change coverage across evening and Sunday news programs between 2009 and 2011.

In the absence of regular reporting, Americans are going elsewhere for information. For example, a recent CNN interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy making the connection between wildfires and climate change has nearly a half million views on YouTube.

As the effects of climate change hit home, consumers will become more attuned to corporate efforts addressing the matter. Over time, they’ll indicate brand preference as well. Companies should take this into account when considering future commitments to more sustainable actions.

Reframing Ancestral Traits To Be Green

June 21, 2012

Certain human behaviors today reflect hardwired traits that helped our ancestors and their kin over time. Such behaviors provide individual benefit, yet the collective impact of such actions can be detrimental to the environment, creating a situation not unlike the Tragedy of the Commons.

Unfortunately, for green marketers, such individual behaviors are not easily influenced, creating an ever-present headwind that they must contend with. Confronting such behavior directly, such as asking individuals to make different choices because current ones are detrimental to the environment, has not proven very successful for marketers.

Instead, Vladas Griskevicius, Stephanie Cantú and Mark Van Vugt, in a recent paper published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, suggest that there are alternative ways to shape such behaviors: Motivate individuals to take more pro-social (and therefore, more eco-friendly) actions by reframing them as having “evolutionary selfish” benefits.

Based on Griskevicius et al., there are at least three social motivations that will drive individuals to alter their behavior in a more pro-environmental way.

Social obligation. One ancestral trait that marketers must confront is that individuals promote self interest – or the interest of their kin – over others. Importantly, Griskevicius et al. note that this wasn’t always the case. For example, it is well documented that clans hunted together, generating mutual benefit. For marketers, this provides a window of understanding into how similar behavioral choices can be reframed today in order for individuals to generate positive benefits from collective actions.

One way marketers have tried to motivate individuals to do so is by creating a social obligation.  Hoteliers have attempted to do so by offering to make a donation on the behalf of guests if those guests reuse their towels once during their stay. Yet, when behavioral economists tested such messaging, it did not motivate significantly different behavior than traditional messaging.

Recently, economists have tried a different approach. This time, the offer of donation was reframed not as a choice but as a fait accompli. The hotel simply informed guests that a donation had been made on their behalf in exchange for reusing towels. In this case, guests felt more obligated to reciprocate, lifting towel reuse by 26 percent (from Goldstein, Noah J.,Vladas Griskevicius, and Robert B. Cialdini (2012), “Reciprocity by Proxy: Harnessing the Power of Obligation to Foster Cooperation,” Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming, as cited by Griskevicius et al.). For marketers, such reframing has broader applicability when companies can afford to incentivize consumer actions, but cannot track and reward individuals for their specific behaviors.

Social recognition. Another ancestral trait is that humans strive to achieve relative (though not absolute) status. This means that humans want a certain level of wealth, power or fame in relation to those around them. Such behavior – the proverbial “keeping up with the Joneses” – is well documented. For example, neighbors of Dutch lottery ticket winners have a higher propensity to purchase new cars or renovate the exterior of their existing homes within the following six months after the winner takes home the money. Such behavior, however, can be problematic as it can lead to over consumption.

Interestingly, consumption is not the only way to display relative status. In fact, as Griskevicius et al. mention somewhat counterintuitively, status can also be achieved through competitive altruism whereby wealthy donors compete for status based on the amount donated, with public recognition for their generosity as a primary motivator.

But marketers can drive eco-friendly actions more broadly with consumers, not just with wealthy donors. The Elan Inn in Hangzhou, China, for example, rewards hotel guests for reducing their carbon impact by moderating room temperatures in summer and winter, or even bringing their own towel. Such rewards would be even more powerful if status were associated with visible perks enjoyed during a hotel stay or meaningful badges displayed on Facebook or local social networks.

Social influence. A final ancestral trait is for humans to unconsciously emulate the behavior of others. For marketers, the challenge is to redirect the behavior by holding up pro-environmental behavior to emulate. For example, as Griskevicius et al. point out, it has been demonstrated that the conservation behavior of one’s neighbors is “often the strongest predictor of [one’s] actual energy use.”

Such benchmarking against others works well as long as a majority demonstrates the desired eco-friendly behavior. But, what happens if only a few neighbors do?

Griskevicius et al. suggest that in this situation, green marketers should reframe the message to create the perception that more people do. They provide an illustration: Instead of communicating that only 5 percent of municipal residents carpool, message that 250,000 do. Reframing the message from a relative to absolute basis can create the perception that more people support the eco-friendly behavior, elevating the social influence that a campaign can actually have.

Hardwired human traits present a challenge for green marketers, as individual behaviors that benefit natural selection may collectively be detrimental to the environment. Instead of confronting them head on, marketers should reframe behaviors to be more pro-social, while ensuring that they are perceived to benefit the individual. By doing so, marketers turn headwinds more favorable.

How to Grow Consumer Attachment to Green Brands

May 10, 2012

Marketers work hard to create an emotional link between consumers and the brands those marketers promote. But that kind of attachment is not easily won and must be nurtured over time. Experts say one way to create that emotional link is by aligning a brand’s identity with the consumer’s sense of self; that is, with a person’s understanding of who they are and what they want to be.

But which sense of self are we talking about? The actual one based on how consumers perceive themselves today – or the ideal one based on who they aspire to be? Answering that question has profound implications for brands, including green brands, in terms of how they should build brand attachment with consumers.

Lucia Malär, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Bern’s Institute of Marketing and Management, and several of her colleagues recently published an article in the Journal of Marketing that explores the relationship between the consumer’s actual and ideal sense of self. While this academic study did not directly address green brands, there are important lessons green marketers can take away from it.

According to the paper, consumers generally form greater emotional attachments with brands that align to how consumers view themselves, rather than what consumers aspire to be. For green brands this is not a trivial consideration — especially when you consider that, for many consumers, the notion of being green is a goal they aspire to.

Malär et al. identify three attributes that have a significant impact on consumer attachment: the degree of product involvement, the level of consumer self-esteem and the propensity for public self-consciousness. Here are some thoughts on how these characteristics can help green marketers better engage consumers:

Product Involvement. The paper defines product involvement as a consumer’s engagement with a product, largely determined by how relevant consumers perceive that product to be in their lives.  Malär et al. observe that highly engaged consumers have a positive emotional attachment with brands that align to their actual sense of self, while less engaged consumers have positive attachment with brands that focus on consumers’ ideal sense of self.

At the same time, it’s not necessarily true that less eco-engaged consumers will respond positively to brands aligned to their ideal self. While consumers may be aspirationally green, they simply may not be familiar with the products that can help them achieve this aspiration.

Green marketers might first need to educate consumers about green brands before those brands can become relevant in their lives. One powerful tool is to communicate a goal-driven message around green products, while showcasing their actual use by people that consumers can readily identify with. That’s what Mitsubishi did when it created a demonstration program for electric car technology in the town of Normal, Ill.

Self-Esteem. Malär et al. say consumer self-esteem is an essential part of emotional brand attachment — as consumers seek out brands that reinforce or enhance their own perceptions of self worth. This means consumers with higher self-esteem have a positive emotional attachment to brands that reinforce their actual sense of self. At the same time, consumers with lower self-esteem have positive emotional attachment with brands that enhance perceptions of their ideal sense of self.

Given the relative newness of green as a branding category, it may make sense for green marketers to interpret self-esteem as a consumer’s confidence in their ability to make greener choices that are right for them. When engaging green-confident consumers, brands might therefore want to emphasize evidence that confirms the consumer’s self view.  For example, green brands should praise consumers for taking eco-friendly actions.

In contrast, when engaging less confident consumers, a brand may want to shape the perception of what it means to be a greener product, and to actively facilitate their purchase. Such brands might want to show consumers what they could achieve with these products, and provide a roadmap for them to get to their goals.

Patagonia provides a great illustration of this through its Common Thread Initiative.   While most companies market only new products, Patagonia launched a “Buy Less” campaign — to shape consumer perceptions regarding responsible consumption: reduce, repair, reuse and recycle. The campaign reinforces its point by actively facilitating the buying and selling of lightly-worm merchandise from Patagonia through eBay.

Public Self-Consciousness. Professor Malär and her colleagues identify public self-consciousness as a consumer’s awareness of how others perceive them. People with high public self-consciousness have a positive emotional attachment to brands that focus on consumers’ actual sense of self, while those with low public self-consciousness have a positive attachment with brands that focus on consumers’ ideal sense of self.

Green marketers should take advantage of this factor by providing ways for consumers to receive public accolades for eco-friendly behavior. One way might be to embed gaming elements such as badges, points and leader boards into networked products.

Reward companies such as RecycleBank and Practically Green have already made gamification a core part of their offerings. Moreover, car companies such as Ford and Nissan have begun to incorporate similar concepts into the dashboards of their hybrid vehicles to reinforce eco-friendly driving behaviors.

Alternatively, brands can encourage the use of social media apps, like the one Opower recently launched, can enable consumers to share and compare energy savings.

It’s interesting to note that, while Malär et al. address emotional brand attachment, they do not tackle rational brand attachment. But such an attachment can be an important brand driver for consumers — especially when products have a direct and measurable impact on the environment. As such, when it comes to green products, rational brand attachment has the potential to amplify the emotional.

One emerging example of how to cultivate rational brand attachment is the Obama Administration’s Green Button initiative.  This program will provide millions of consumers with access to their energy data. It might also spark the development of innovative ways to leverage that data, in an effort to motivate consumers to reduce their energy use.

Brand marketers face considerable challenges in establishing and nurturing brand attachment. Those attachments not only require an assessment of brand identity, but also exploring the mindset of the intended consumers — that is, how they actually perceive themselves today or ideally in the future. Green marketers can take advantage of this relationship by aligning their brands to the mindset that best promotes eco-friendly behaviors by consumers.

Three Lessons for Fulfilling on a Green Brand Promise

January 29, 2012

When it comes to the environment, consumer behavior can be inconsistent or even a bit hypocritical.  Two-car families will buy a hybrid and a gas guzzling SUV.  Parents will teach their kids to turn off the water while brushing, but take a few extra minutes in the shower to enjoy the peace and quiet.  Somehow, we tend to overlook our own inconsistencies, while holding others accountable for their actions.

Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that consumers tend to be less forgiving of a brand’s missteps than their own.  They are quick to assume green washing regardless of good intensions.

Why is it that consumers hold green brands to a higher standard than they do themselves?

It is not an easy question to answer.  Certainly, as human beings, we have a harder time taking stock of our own actions than another’s.  But, the distinction goes further.

First, consumers turn to brands as a form of self-expression based on who they are today, or who they ideally want to be.  For consumers to do so, brands need to clearly articulate what they believe in and be consistent in how they express these beliefs.  Arguably, this is especially important for green brands, as most mainstream consumers tend to be less familiar with them or how they benefit the environment.  As a result, consumers tend to rely more heavily on green brands for guidance when making purchase decisions.

Second, consumers expect green brands to deliver on promised reductions in environmental impact.  When they don’t, consumers feel disappointed that expectations are not met, or frustrated because, despite good intensions, they are not able to make a positive impact that they anticipated.

A recent personal example:

For the past year, I have turned to OZOcar, the eco-friendly car service, to help me reduce my eco-impact from business travel.  On one recent occasion, OZOcar ran out of cars and farmed my ride out to one of several livery companies in its network.  Instead of a Prius, the vehicle that arrived was a gas-guzzling Suburban.  An eco-friendly car service providing about the least eco-friendly ride.   In marketing terms, the Suburban was off brand.

While this was not part of my typical experience with OZOcar, it offered clear lessons for all brands:

Be clear about what a brand promise is and isn’t.  Brands should set clear expectations about their brand promise.  For example, it is not unreasonable for a small company like OZOcar to send a gas-powered substitute – preferably a sedan instead of an SUV – when its fleet is being fully used.  That said, brands should clearly set expectations upfront so that consumers know what to expect and are not free to interpret perceived (or actual) inconsistencies in their own way.

Fulfill on a brand promise, or modify the promise.  A customer service manager at OZOcar did offer to change my individual profile to state that I did not want to be picked up in an SUV.  I asked if they would consider changing their policy so that their network would not send SUVs to any OZOcar customers.  They said that they would look into it.

Know how consumers perceive a brand. What matters most is not what a brand says about itself, but how consumers perceive it.  As such, marketers should stay abreast of how consumers perceive their brand by soliciting feedback during customer interactions or monitoring (and perhaps joining) online conversations in social media.  This will enable a brand to quickly adjust its messaging – or its offering – to reinforce its brand promise.

Can Flash Mobs Engage Consumers on Green?

December 21, 2011

Recently, National Grid launched a surprise dance performance in a Saugus, MA mall as part of its ‘Tap into Savings’ campaign.  In many ways, this performance resembled a flash mob, with dancers appearing seemingly from nowhere to engage an unsuspecting crowd of shoppers, and then dispersing.

As a social phenomenon, the flash mob emerged in the early 00’s, enabled by Internet and mobile connectivity. While some flash mobs organize spontaneously, most are actually well-choreographed events that often captivate unsuspecting audiences where they occur.  One of the most viewed flash mobs was a choreographed rendition of “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music in Central Station Antwerp, Belgium.

While flash mobs are no longer the rage, marketers have periodically embraced the medium, as they consider it a tested way to engage new audiences and promote viral marketing.  Two corporate flash mobs are stand outs: First, in 2009, T-Mobile sponsored a flash mob in 2009 at Liverpool Station, London.

More recently, Wells Fargo sponsored a flash mob in New York City’s Times Square as part of their 2011 launch (rebranding of Wachovia) in the city.

Marketers in the green space have also embraced the flash mob, though primarily to make political statements rather than promote brands.  One such statement was made by students at the University of Catania in Sicily in its “The World Has Been Stripped Enough” flash mob for the 2011 World Environment Day.

Intriguingly, as green marketers and brands try to engage a more mainstream audience, it seems that there is broader role that flash mobs can play.  Specifically, flash mobs can:

Capture and hold attention.  Flash mobs capture consumer attention through the element of surprise, and hold it by being entertaining.

Green marketers can take advantage of this by turning the event into a teachable moment, especially when engaging audiences that might not ordinarily tune into an environmental message.  National Grid, for example, used its dance performance to teach shoppers about energy savings.

Reach fragmented audiences.  As channels have proliferated and audiences become more fragmented, marketers have had to respond by investing across more channels in order to be able to reach their intended audience.  In an ideal world, flexible creative assets can be produced all at once and then distributed across various channels.  Flash mobs offer a great example of a tactic that naturally aligns with this shift.

Take T-Mobile, for example.  While the flash mob captured the momentary attention of the surrounding crowds, it was also filmed for a TV spot that aired 36 hours later.  Video cuts were also distributed through channels like YouTube and viewed by millions more users.  This use of flexible assets enabled T-Mobile to get the most out of a single event.

Cultivate peer endorsements.  Marketers recognize that consumer endorsements can influence the behavior and beliefs of their peers.  Many marketers take advantage of this today by actively encouraging such endorsements as a key objective of the campaign.  Interestingly, flash mob dynamics may facilitate consumer endorsement more deliberately, or perhaps even enable a marketer to stage it.

A flash mob sponsored by TVA Canoe, an Internet TV site in Quebec, provides a great example of this. In this case, flash mob participants effectively reversed roles with unwitting bystanders.  To initiate the flash mob, a performer left an empty plastic bottle on the ground next to a recycling container in a well trafficked area of a mall. Shoppers filed pass the plastic bottle without much notice, while participants waited, blending in amongst the crowds.

Then, one woman, an unwitting bystander, picked up the bottle and put it into the recycling container. When she did, she was met with a standing ovation from the flash mob ‘audience’.

From a bystander’s view point, it looked as if fellow shoppers spontaneously broke into applause in response to an altruistic act by a peer.  Such overwhelming praise has the potential, in of itself, to be perceived by consumers as a peer endorsement, reinforcing the positive behavior in the minds of the consumer audience

Transform brand enthusiasts into participants. It is important for marketers to remember that green consumers tend to be passionate about not only what the brand stands for, but how much they can reduce their impact by choosing one product or brand over another.

Marketers should cultivate this sentiment by finding meaningful ways for enthusiasts to interact with the brand and share those experiences with others.  One way may be to invite enthusiasts to actually participate in a flash mob itself.  What better way to engage with the brand?  It certainly provides fodder for generating and sharing social content afterwards.

It has been a decade since flash mobs emerged as a social phenomenon.  Over that time, marketers have embraced the medium to drive engagement and encourage viral marketing.  Interestingly, green marketers challenged to engage mainstream audiences may find the flash mob especially useful in reaching target audiences and influencing behavior change.

Facebook Timeline’s Green Marketing Opportunities

November 26, 2011

Over the past few years, we have seen the web transform from a medium that facilitates information exchange to one that enables social connections and conversation.  Arguably, the recent launch of Facebook’s Timeline marks another milestone for the web, enabling a web experience more personal than ever before.

Timeline facilitates the sharing of a user’s life story – both the portion already written and the one still unfolding. It does so by transforming the current Facebook profile into an unending digital scrapbook of sorts.  Facebook reorganizes and summarizes available personal data such as likes, apps and photos into a timeline.  Users are then encouraged to fill in the gaps, especially meaningful events that predate their time on Facebook.

What makes Timeline so different is that it enables users to share their lives in an easily accessible, highly visual chronology, rather than simply post thoughts in the here and now.  A living memoir, if you will.

For green marketers, Timeline offers a unique new way to understand and connect with Facebook users, and one which they should take advantage of.  Here are a couple of ideas how:

Persistence:  Timeline organizes content in a way that enables individual posts to remain accessible, rather than disappear from view on the Facebook Wall.  Persistent access increases the value of this content – and Facebook as a channel for distributing it – by enabling it to be consumed and shared by viewers over a longer period of time.  This provides greater impetus for green marketers to motivate consumers to post about, like or share branded content on Facebook, as greater persistence means more impressions over time.

Prediction: Personal information has long been used to more effectively target users with ads.  Arguably, Timeline will enable a more in-depth view of the user mindset, revealing new targeting and messaging avenues.  Facebook has the potential to use this data not only to help green marketers find those that have demonstrated a clear affinity for green, but also to predict interest based on similar attitudes, experiences, demographics or behaviors.  This can enable green marketers to target micro-segments with more specific messaging, or even find new audiences, even those that have not yet taken action.

While Timeline is still in beta with consumers, there are expectations that Facebook will soon make Timeline functionality available for business pages.  Green brands should consider this new template for their own Facebook page as its functionality offers advantages for companies too:

Presentation: Timeline could enable new ways for businesses to present their brand online.  For example, Timeline enables a larger profile image prominently placed at the top of the page. Companies could use this space to build awareness for their brand or promote a trial offer for a new product.  Additionally, Timeline allows users to expand thumbnail images to provide a broader view of images and graphics, something for which the previous platform has limited ability to do.  This should benefit green marketers who find that their products require more explanation to drive broader adoption.

Persistence: A chronological Facebook business page would enable users ongoing access to brand information.  This should motivate green marketers to post more content on their Facebook pages such as product information, stories or even blog posts, bolstering these pages as comprehensive access points for brand content.

Timeline is an emerging platform that will enable users to have a more personal web experience.  Green marketers should take advantage of this functionality to more effectively engage consumers, as well as new capabilities as the platform evolves into the future.

Uncharted Waters: Reframing Climate Change Around Water

October 17, 2011

Einstein is credited with saying that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Such words have renewed meaning when it comes to messaging about climate change as everything about it seems complex – its cause, its impact, and the challenges that humans face to address it. Just describing climate change poses a formidable challenge for communicators. Its causes are many and not necessarily intuitive to grasp.  Likewise, its impact is difficult to comprehend, especially given how interconnected Earth’s natural systems are.

Like any marketing communications challenge, consumers needs sound bites that relay information as simply as possible, but no simpler. The message needs to be relevant to their daily lives. The narrative needs to be easily digestible and sharable so that it quickly becomes part of the broader lexicon. It also needs to instill a sense of urgency, but not leave a feeling of being overwhelmed.

One possible way to address this challenge is to reframe the climate change conversation around water. This shift is necessary for many reasons:

First, the current narrative around global warming is too complex and abstract for most audiences to grasp fully: rising temperatures, melting polar ice sheets, burning rainforests, rising sea levels, and so forth. Focusing on water enables communicators to simplify the message, as water is familiar to all of us and essential for our own survival. Rather than shortchanging the complexity of climate change, communicators that narrow the message enable consumers to more easily digest it.

Second, focusing on water allows us to shift communications away from the cause of climate change to its impact. Natural water variability is expected from year to year, but overall, supplies in the US, even in the arid west, have traditionally been relatively predictable from year to year. In the current world, a “100-year” drought actually only occurs every 100 years.

Yet, climate change has already disrupted this paradigm. Today, we are shifting to a world of water volatility, where the probability of extreme droughts and floods increases dramatically. For example, in 2010, the Amazon rainforest experienced its second “100 year” drought in 5 years. When this happens, people start to pay attention.

Finally, water enables communicators to reposition global climate change as an inherently local issue. It has long been the case that consumers have had a difficult time connecting with – let alone financially supporting – global environmental issues. Redefining climate change as a local issue makes it more personal, and provides an opportunity to motivate more grassroots support for action at the local level.

Yet, today, the impact of climate change is being felt closer to home. Local communities in the US are being devastated by water – or the lack there of – from extreme droughts and wildfires across Texas to torrential rains and flooding in Vermont. Globally, the impact has arguably been more severe because people in places like Pakistan, Bangladesh and even China have fewer resources to cope with it.

To this end, it is important to outline a communications construct that shifts the focus of climate change to its impact on water. Here is one approach:As communicators, we face the ongoing challenge of constructing the right narrative that engages audiences on this important issue of our time.  Simply, but no simpler.

The best way to do so is still open for discussion.

What is your approach?


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